How Weddings in Israel are Different
“Ha-na’alayim b’seder?” I asked the blue-shirted security worker lining up bags on the conveyor belt at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. “Are shoes OK?” I knew the answer – I could leave them on – but I asked because I wanted him to talk to me in Hebrew. I was returning from my eighth trip to Tel Aviv in two years. As usual, I came here for work – but this trip, I stayed an extra day so I could attend my colleague’s wedding.
I’d received the invitation months earlier, through email. Instead of writing my response on a calligraphed card and mailing it to the bride’s parents, I clicked Accept. “Nimrod and Naomi’s Wedding” went from striped to solid on my Outlook calendar.
Spending even a little time with Nimrod and Naomi makes you happy they’ve found each other, and I was honored to witness to their union. I was also excited from my vantage as a cultural explorer: I had never been to an Israeli wedding. As soon as I confirmed my trip, questions started queuing up in my head: What do guests wear? Will the ceremony be religious? Do they have a gift registry somewhere? Who will be at my table?
Although this was my maiden voyage as wedding guest, I had actually been to Nanuchka, where the wedding would take place. It’s a trendy Georgian bar and restaurant in the heart of Tel Aviv, and I’d been there with friends after work. If memory served me right, we were in for a seriously good time.
Before I left the U.S., I grilled an Israeli colleague who works in our office about what to expect. No gifts, she said; everyone writes a check. Guests will wear everything from jeans and T-shirts to fancy dresses. Don’t expect place cards and assigned tables. Should I buy a card to put the money in? Not necessary; they’ll provide envelopes. Should I be there right at 11:30, the time on the invitation? Only if you want to stand around awkwardly with the wedding party.
I arrived a little before noon to find the bride and groom taking photos with their family. Outside on the patio, where the temperature was upwards of 90° F, champagne cocktails were lined up on the bar, and a few of my colleagues already had them in hand. Unlike American weddings, Israeli celebrations usually involve drinks and appetizers before the ceremony begins. Looking around, the attire fit the range described: Women were dressed up a bit, while many of the men were in jeans. A friend from work wandered in, wearing cargo shorts and a pair of flip flops that looked like they were held together by tape. “I only wear shoes for customers,” he said.
The wedding began about an hour later. As the rabbi, in his traditional black hat and suit, called the ceremony to order, the chuppah bearers lead the procession, accompanied by Israeli music. When it was the bride’s turn to emerge, the guests cheered loudly as she walked down the aisle.
In Israel, I have noticed that even marginally religious Jews follow more traditional rites than are customary in the North American Reform Movement. As a woman, I had not been invited to light the Hanukkah candles at our office when I was there in 2011, which caught me off guard in a company where half the executive team is female. At the wedding, after Nimrod gave Naomi a ring, the rabbi began a rousing round of “Mazal Tov.” and the crowd joined in. Wasn’t Naomi going to give him a ring? I wondered aloud. As it turned out, Naomi did give Nimrod a ring, but later in the ceremony – after the marriage was sealed. The whole ceremony took about 15 minutes.
Then it was party time. The staff began assembling a buffet of Georgian favorites: a dozen different salads, pelmeni, couscous, beef. We filled our plates and found a place to sit inside. After the meal, we wandered into the next room, where the bride, groom, and several small children were standing on the bar. Others joined them, and with the DJ spinning in the background, the bar was soon a bona fide dance floor. The bartender conga’ed by and held out a hand. “When in Rome,” I thought – and up onto it went!
I left three hours later, having dropped my gift (festively presented in a bank deposit envelope with “Mazal Tov!” scrawled on it) in the metal safe placed there for that purpose. Naomi and Nimrod were still dancing with friends and family on the bar.
The wedding was a blast, grounded in ritual, but 90% pure fun, unfettered by some of the fussiness that characterizes American weddings. No seating charts, no calligraphy, no gift registry – just a joyous celebration.
Karen White, a member of Temple Emanu-El in San Jose, CA, lives with her partner and her two children in the San Francisco Bay Area. She travels regularly to Israel for work and writes about parenting, and other things that make you go hmm, with a Jewish perspective.
Adapted from a post originally published at The Accidental Writer